This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,753) on Friday, January 6, 2023.
Some people blanche at the word “resolution” especially at this time of year. They believe, often rightly, that New Year’s resolutions are meaningless if not harmful because they raise expectations and often result in frustration. I don’t really subscribe to that kind of thinking, but I do understand it.
The new year is a good time for some reflection and revision. It is also a time that we can consider taking on new challenges.
Rather than resolutions, the vogue today is adopting a particular word or phrase to guide us as we try to reshape the view of ourselves and our world. Typical of this thinking is this article by the LivingWell Washington Post writer Tara Parker-Pope on what she terms as “nudge words.”
The idea of a “nudge word” fascinates me, and I am considering what those might be for myself. Currently I am thinking about two words: compassion and creativity. If you had to pick a nudge word for 2023, what might it be? Read the above-cited article for some suggestions, and if you have any words to share, let me know.
Have a great and literate weekend, and a very Happy New Year.
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Metta Victoria Fuller Victor and the first American detective novel
Poe is the undisputed (mostly) father of American detective fiction. He wrote three short stories featuring Inspector Auguste Dupin, and he wrote about detective fiction in a way that established many of the rules of the genre. Poe died at a tragically early age and was thus unable to develop his ideas. Indeed, he did not write a detective fiction novel.
That’s where Metta Victoria Fuller Victor comes in. During the middle of the 19th century, she was a prolific writer and editor, a mainstay of America’s developing literary scene. Writing under the name Seeley Regester, she produced what is thought to be the first American detective novel. Its title is The Dead Letter: An American Romance. Its publication date is listed as 1866, but it may have appeared as early as 1864.
Victor wrote at least four other mystery novels, all published before 1870.
Metta Victoria Fuller was born in Pennsylvania in 1831 and then moved with her family in 1839 to Wooster, Ohio. She and her sister Frances, also a writer, attended school in Wooster, and they both began their writing careers there by submitting stories to local newspapers and later to magazines.
Metta published her first book, Last Days of Tul: A Romance of the Lost Cities of Yucatán, when she was just a teenager. That book came out in 1847, and in 1851 she published a temperance novel titled The Senator’s Son. That book was so popular that it went through 10 editions.
Metta was supported in her writing career by Nathaniel Parker Willis, an influential editor of the New York Mirror.
In 1856 she married Orville James Victor, a newspaper editor in Sandusky, Ohio. During that time the publishing firm of Street & Smith’s New York Weekly offered her a contract of $25,000 for the exclusive rights to her stories during a five-year period.
Metta and her husband moved to New York in 1858, and there they had nine children. Despite the burdens of 19th century motherhood duties, she continued to write at a prolific rate. When her contract with Street & Smith’s New York Weekly ran out, she worked primarily for Beadle and Adams, and she published books in a variety of genres using nearly a dozen pen names.
One of her books, an 1861 novel, titled Maum Guinea, was an anti-slavery novel that was popular with thousands of readers, including Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ward Beecher.
In January 1866, Beadle’s Monthly began serializing The Dead Letter, and installments appeared for the next eight months. The novel was about a murder during which the family of the victim comes to suspect a friend of the family. The accused man works with a famous New York detective identified as “Mr. Burton” to solve the murder and prove his innocence.
Victor did not foresee the possibility that Burton could be a continuing character in subsequent novels. She notes in the novel that he will be killed soon after the novel ends. That oversight, according to scholars of the literature of that age, helped send her work into obscurity—an obscurity that has been only recently overcome.
Victor’s writing shifted often to keep up with the changing tastes of her reading public, and this ability kept her writing steadily for the next two decades until her death from cancer in 1885. She was only 54 years old.
So who did write the first American detective series? That would be Edgar Allan Poe, if you discount the fact that his detective was French and his stories were set in Paris. But what about the first American detective series written by an American author? The author was Harriet Spofford (right, another overlooked female author), and we will talk about her next week.
An ode to libraries with which I agree—mostly
Moira Donegan, an opinion writer, for The Guardian newspaper, has a column in which she answers the unasked question, “At the end of this year, what are you thankful for?”
The writer is thankful for public libraries. So am I.
I agree with much of what she has written, especially when she says “. . . the public library offers an almost otherworldly dignity, a sense of purpose and seriousness that falls over you when you enter. The silence of the reading rooms begins to feel like the reverent hush of a temple.”
Donegan praises “the majesty of library buildings” and “the nobility of their purpose.” She points out that libraries are not money-making entities; they do not depend on consumers, but rather have “patrons.” Libraries offer not only information but also a chance for people to “pursue their aspirations and their whims.”
All of these sentiments align perfectly with my own thinking.
I part company with Donegan in her introduction, however. There she states:
If you proposed it now, at any town council or city hall meeting, you would be laughed from the room. The concept is almost unthinkably indulgent, in our austere times: an institution, open for free to anyone, that sells no products, makes no money, is funded from public coffers, and is dedicated solely to the public interest, broadly defined. And it’s for books.
If the public library did not already exist as a pillar of local civic engagement in American towns and cities, there’s no way we would be able to create it. It seems like a relic of a bygone era of public optimism, a time when governments worked to value and edify their people, rather than punish and extract from them. Moria Donegan https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/28/usa-public-libraries
To me, Donegan has her history mixed in with a romantic view of some time in the glowing past when American society actually valued intelligence and curiosity, when, by consensus, it was open to new ideas in new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, that has never been the case with America.
It certainly is not the case with the way in which libraries originated. Libraries were formed not out of broad public consensus, but rather because a few concerned and forward-looking citizens got together wherever they were located and decided that some community space should be devoted to expanding the mind of its citizens. There was, in my reading, no starry-eyed vision that all citizens would take advantage of this space.
Having the space was an important mission for the citizens and their efforts to create these spaces, whether in the smallest towns or the largest of cities, were often monumental and exhausting. Libraries were created with private donations of money, books, and other material. Rarely has a library been created and sustained from its beginning solely with public funds.
Libraries are indeed wonderful things, and those of us who live in the 21st century are fortunate to have them. But we should not be glassy-eyed about how they began, and we should not be discouraged about how they can be sustained.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Anne Bradstreet, Puritan wife and mother and America’s first published poet
Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong,
Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.
Those lines, written in Massachusetts Bay colony before 1650 and referring to Queen Elizabeth I, are a gentle but firm response to those who believed that women have inferior minds and have no place in the realms of literature. The poet was reminding her readers that within the lifetime of many of those who would eventually read it, they had honored and been ruled by . . . a woman.
The lines were written by the first American to become a published poet, Anne Bradstreet. Her collection of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1650. Her volume of verse became wildly popular first in England and eventually in America, where, it was said, that every household that had any books at all—and most of them in Puritan America at that time had books—had a copy of Bradstreet’s poems.
Bradstreet was born Anne Dudley in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, in Northampton, England. Thomas Dudley was a Puritan and a steward for the Earl of Lincoln. She was tutored by her father in history, languages, politics, and a variety of other subjects. Dudley took great pride in his daughter’s education and in her quick and absorbent mind. When she was 16, she married Simon Bradstreet, also a leader in the growing Puritan movement.
The Dudleys and Bradstreets moved from England to Massachusetts in 1630.
The move was a shock and a sacrifice for the families and particularly for Anne. She left a comfortable life in England to deal with the harsh climate and people of the frontier. During the next 15 years, they moved six times, from Salem to Boston to Charlestown (Cambridge) and finally settling in Andover Parish. Anne bore children all during these years, eventually having eight children in her brood. The Dudleys and Bradstreets were among the most prominent and wealthiest families in the colony, but life was not easy.
Encouraged by her father, Anne began to write poetry, and she became uncommonly good at it. She imitated the style of poets she had read, particularly Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, a poet in public favor at the time. Eventually, she developed a style of her own. Her encyclopedic learning gave her the confidence to write about a wide range of subjects, from history to domestic life. Her insights were thoughtful and deep, but while questioning the events and circumstances she encountered, she never strayed from her role as a Puritan wife and mother.
The Tenth Muse by Anne Bradstreet (1650)
Anne was mentored not only by her father but also by Nathaniel Ward, a well-known Puritan minister and elder statesman in the colony.
We don’t know many of the details of Anne’s domestic life or how or when she wrote her poems. The household with so many children must have been a busy one, and Anne probably did her writing early in the morning or late at night when the children were asleep and the house quiet. Her poems exhibit a wide knowledge of history and literature, so she also spent a good deal of time reading and thinking.
In 1647, Anne’s brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge, was sent to England to help negotiate peace between King Charles I and Parliamentary forces aligned against him during the English Civil War. Woodbridge was another man in Anne’s life who had read her poetry and had encouraged her to continue to write. Woodbridge carried her finished poems with him to London and found a publisher.
Throughout her writing career, Anne had downplayed her talent and humbled herself as merely a woman trying her best—feebly, she would claim—to express her thoughts and feelings. She did this, at least in part, to deflect possible criticism, particularly within the Puritan community.
But the public, both Puritan and non-Puritan, responded to her writings, and her poems were well-received. Within a couple of years of the publication of her book, she had achieved the fame and recognition of her work that she had long sought.
Still, despite the book and its acceptance, the decade of the 1650s was not a happy one for her. She lost her beloved father and a grandchild, and she later fell into a long-term illness. The next decade, the 1660s, was a somewhat happier one. She recovered her health to some extent, and she continued to write. More importantly, she revised and corrected much of the work in The Tenth Muse. In 1666 the Bradsteet’s house in Andover burned, and some of her original work was lost.
After that, her health declined, and she died in 1672.
Despite her popularity and the longevity of her work, there are few physical places that mark her life. No statues of her are known to exist.
More information about Anne Bradstreet and her poetry can be found at the following locations:
Wendy Martin, Queens College, Anne Bradstreet (The Poetry Foundation)
Charlotte Gordon, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet
Anne Bradstreet’s poetry
To My Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
You can read more of her poetry at this location.
Illustration: The Tenth Muse by Anne Bradstreet (1650)
Group giveaways for January
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Feline in profile
Best quote of the week:
“The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil!”
William E. Gladstone, British politician, (1809-1898)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Jonathan Swift, Andrew Greeley, and things about good and bad book reviews: newsletter, December 30, 2022
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